As the fastest growing spirit in the U.S., tequila has overcome its bad rap as the cheap, college hangover culprit, while simultaneously breaking into a fixated market, where vodka and whiskey previously reigned. What propelled this shift?
“When celebrities got involved in the tequila industry, they helped bring awareness to tequila,” offers Jim McDermott, co-founder and CEO of LALO Tequila. Celebrities like George Clooney with Casamigos, Nick Jonas with Villa One and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with Teremana all contributed to celebrity tequila culture that seemingly created an oversaturated subcategory, where it’s now expected, even passé, for an actor, model, singer or artist to launch or endorse the spirit. “It’s like that @dudewithsign meme: “You can be famous and not have a tequila brand,” says McDermott.
Today, celebrity tequila creates a quandary in the industry—while famous faces helped carve out room in the market for the spirit, it also encouraged mass production, taking away from the tradition and art of tequila-making. Craft brands like LALO recognize celebrities for giving the spirit a platform, and metaphorically raising the tide for all tequilas, however, with consumer-behavior shifting to embrace novelty and uniqueness from a brand, smaller producers are hoping this encourages consumer education around the heritage, traditions and culture of tequila production.
“The idea of supporting a brand based on who is behind it seems outdated to me,” says Josh Irving, co-owner of Socorro Tequila. “Celebrity brands are enticing because consumers feel they are associating themselves with that person, but, at the end of the day, we believe expertise, passion, care, and a superior product will win.” Irving emphasizes that as customers recognize the variety of tequila brands on the market, they’re starting to dig into their background and production methods. “Finding a superior product that you can introduce to your friends and family is much more powerful than bringing over a brand because of what celebrity has licensed their name to it,” says Irving.
Seeking out the “most unique” product is a consumer behavior that’s increased in the past decade, and even more so in a post-pandemic world. The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University published an article at the beginning of 2021, finding that “consumers are craving products and brands that deliver novelty and fun.”
Consumers are also continuously pursuing brand sustainability, as seen in the case of the growing organic and sustainable culinary movement. “It’s just natural that after people wanted more organic food, and to know the story behind who made [their food], and where did it come from, that this also carried into spirits,” shares Chris Brandon and Matthew Hechter, partners in Tepozan Tequila, which launched in the U.S. for the first time this summer.
“Consumers are more willing to support brands that are doing things more sustainable, traditional, respectful, transparent,” emphasized Kristopher DeSoto, founder of Hiatus Tequila.
This brings up one of the most significant aspects of tequila production as it takes six to eight years for an agave to mature. If agave are harvested too quickly and mass produced, or steps are skipped, the craft and art of the industry will be lost, or worse, agave crops could become permanently damaged.
“The shift [to craft tequila] is important in order to preserve the true culture of tequila,” says DeSoto. He explains that the long-term impact of mass production could not only damage the tradition behind the spirit, but also the physical properties of the tequila, since large producers often rely on techniques to abbreviate the process from growing to aging, in order to keep up with increased demand. These methods include over-farming, harvesting the agave before it’s fully grown, and using additives to mimic flavors for aged tequilas.
“There is a scary scenario where these powerful global brands and globally recognized celebrities can use their marketing muscle to convince enough consumers to believe their brands are the ‘best’ example of Mexican tequila,” says DeSoto. “Driving demand for those products—which then other producers will start creating more brands similar in flavor profile—could ultimately lead to a complete change away from what tequila was meant to taste like.”
Though there is no regulated definition of what accredits a craft tequila, the term is typically associated with small-batch or limited production, which permits quality control from crop growth to harvest to distillation and treatment of the farmers involved.
“To our belief, craft tequila is based on the quality of raw materials (agave in the right geographical location that matured and is harvested at the most ideal time of the year), traditional way of cooking (brick ovens with an emphasis on only gaining the best sugars from the pines), mastering the art of distilling to make sure only the purest ‘heart’ of the tequila is maintained and, most importantly, the passion of the people making a unique product,” says Pablo Antinori, co-owner of Socorro Tequila. Antinori draws the analogy to cooking, explaining that when you cook for four people versus 100 people, the attention to detail is much more profound since you are able to provide quality control in every step.
Brandon and Hechter add the importance of the terroir and local ingredients’ role in craft tequilas, including the local water and yeast used in production, which result in an expression unique to the area: “A craft tequila cannot be mass produced in a distillery that makes countless other brands because there wouldn’t be enough distinction between the products, and therefore, will not have character of their own beyond the label and marketing strategy behind the brand.” For reference, Taste Tequila, a tequila education platform, reports that 97.8 percent of tequilas being made today come from distilleries that produce multiple brands.
McDermott says this is another distinction of craft tequila: “If you really want to know the heart and soul of the brand, look at whoever owns the brand and ask yourself, or even them, ‘How often are you in Mexico? Tell us about the people that work with you there.’ You will be surprised how many will be stumped at this.” David R. Carballido, co-founder and creative director at LALO adds that many times the larger producers, and often in the case of celebrity brands, have no association with the production itself, but for craft producers, this is their sole purpose. “Some celebrities own makeup or fashion lines, and now they have a tequila brand? I promise you, they are not going to pay as much attention to detail as someone whose sole purpose is making good tequila,” says Carballido.
This kind of attention to the brand and detail transcends into conscious consumerism through education; if a mass producer has no association of place to their tequila product, they likely aren’t educated on the significance of sustainable farming of the agave, as well as the treatment of the jimadors and tequileros.
“Smaller, more conscious brands are leading the way with education, but our reach is minuscule compared to the large brands or celebrity brands, so it is a much longer education cycle,” says DeSoto. “With more education and more craft brands trying to do things in a more authentic and traditional way, we can help maintain the true tequila culture, which in turn keeps traditional processes and methods alive, versus being lost to modernization.”
In order to learn more about craft brands, LALO’s co-founders suggest consumers look into how their favorite brands allocate their money; for example, a simply packaged tequila is likely to reflect a craft brand as their funds are focused on the liquid itself; what’s in the bottle, not decorating it. They also suggest speaking with local spirits specialists: “It’s rare to find a mixologist or liquor store-owner who isn’t passionate about craft spirits, because they know the difference in quality and purpose matters,” says McDermott. You can also search Tequila Matchmaker, a user-friendly, tequila database designed by Taste Tequila.
As craft tequila garners more attention and the future of celebrity endorsements is unclear, McDermott concludes, saying, “It will be exciting when the true celebrities behind the tequila brands are the tequileros, again.”